Engagement with Ms Gina McIntyre

I welcome Ms Gina McIntyre, chief executive, Special EU Programmes Body, to this engagement. As a committee, we are anxious to hear what solutions, if any, she has to offer. Many other witnesses have mentioned money. We hope Ms McIntyre has lots of answers.

Before we begin, Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her, or it identifiable.

I now invite Ms McIntyre to make her opening statement.

Ms Gina McIntyre

I am delighted to have the opportunity to be involved in this discussion exploring potential solutions to the challenges we are facing following the UK's withdrawal from the EU. I am accompanied today by Mr. John Greer, director with responsibility for assessing applications and monitoring projects. I hope that he will get an opportunity later to outline some details of the funded projects and their activities at this time. We always welcome the opportunity to report on the progress and impact of our cross-border EU funding programmes, PEACE IV and INTERREG VA, which are worth €0.5 billion and will run until 2022. It is a good news story in terms of these programmes. I am sure Members are familiar with them. In line with the topic to be addressed here today, I will confine my comments to the context of those EU funding programmes.

It is important to mention at the outset the significance the EU funding has had in the region over the last 20 years. Funding has played a crucial role in addressing social, economic and cross-border challenges and cannot be underestimated. The value alone of the funding does not reflect the impact it has had. The impact of Brexit and possible loss of funding is a matter of great concern to many hundreds of thousands of people who are directly and indirectly benefitting from the PEACE and INTERREG programmes across the region. It is an issue that has come up many times in conversation over the last few months. I draw the attention of Members to annex 1 attached to my statement which provides some historic overview, including a number of the most significant benefits from both programmes.

I would like now to briefly outline a number of the challenges that we have identified in relation to managing the EU funding in the region. The most significant challenge we face is the uncertainty surrounding future funding, post-2022, when the UK leaves the EU. However, with regard to current funding programmes, we have also identified some practical challenges over the next few years. The funding for the current programmes has been, as much as possible, Brexit-proofed in relation to the UK's share of the funding within the programmes. This was provided by way of an assurance from the Treasury in October last. All projects that are approved before an exit date will have their funding assured. We are in the business of ensuring that as many projects as possible will be funded before that time. The practical implications of the UK leaving the EU on the activity delivered by the projects is as yet uncertain but we will continue to monitor that into the future. We will be running a series of evaluations and engagements with projects and stakeholders to ensure that the activity they have planned to deliver and are undertaking is not hindered in any way at the time of Brexit. These stakeholders also had plans and ambitions for future activity post the funding of their projects and we will also be looking at the how Brexit might impact in that regard.

The European Commission undertook a research project across all European borders to gather evidence relating to funding of cross-border programmes. It identified 37 common obstacles, which Members will be pleased to hear I do not intend to list now, summarised into four key areas. In terms of what could help address some of those obstacles, the research recommended that the best way of overcoming the obstacles that would have the most productive impact in the region was in the areas of competitiveness, such as product innovation and development of cultural and industrial activities and social and human capital, such as education and training activities. I am pleased to report that our programmes will run up to 2022, focused on those areas.

Members will see from the INTERREG VA programme that it is a cross-Border programme worth €283 million, comprising four core objectives in the areas of research and innovation, which is about building business industry relevant research and innovation capacity across the region on a cross-Border basis and will involve engagement with 1,400 SMEs and micro-businesses, aimed at developing their new products and processes in tradeable services.

There are environmental initiatives in the areas of protected habitats, water management and sustainable transport. There is also a significant amount of money, €63 million, in cross-Border health and social care, which will target more than 30,000 people.

The PEACE IV programme is worth over €270 million. I imagine that most of you are aware of the PEACE programme and its objectives. It was the EU assistance to help address the peace and reconciliation needs of the region. The Irish Government played a pivotal role in securing this PEACE IV programme, which we are now implementing.

There are four core themes in that programme the first of which is shared education, which involves direct, sustained, curriculum-based contact between pupils and teachers from all backgrounds on a cross-Border basis with the aim of promoting good relations. Second, €37 million was allocated directly to the area of children and young people in trying to ensure that we improve the capacity of those young people to have positive and effective relationships with others from different backgrounds. Third, shared spaces and capital involves eight capital projects with the objective of creating a more cohesive society and changing attitudes and behaviours in the area. This also covers victims and survivors. We have €17 million allocated to this theme and it will add investment to cross-Border health and well-being services that develop proven expertise within the region. Initiatives to address local needs will be delivered directly through local councils and almost a third of the programme has been directly allocated to the local authorities across Northern Ireland and the Border region. They all have individual plans and allocations, addressing the areas of shared spaces and services, children and young people and building positive relations. Finally, the fourth core theme is the building of positive relations at a regional level. This objective is to support groups impacted by the legacy of the conflict and this support will, we hope, be used to fund up to 20 projects at regional level.

There is a high level of interest in these programmes. The INTERREG programme is about 90% committed at this stage and the letters of offer have been issued. The PEACE programme is about 45% committed. We are also assessing all aspects of the PEACE programme with the view to having that programme 90% to 100% committed by the end of September.

One possible solution to the challenges surrounding the loss of EU funding is to take every opportunity to obtain access to EU cross-Border programmes in the future. The EU, the Irish Government and the UK Government have all put Northern Ireland and Border issues at the top of their agenda. Each has reaffirmed its commitment to safeguarding the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement. There is good will for solutions to be found and we in SEUPB are in a unique position enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement. We have much experience of working at intergovernmental, regional and local level, developing programmes and looking at the needs of the region. With regard to the EU itself, there are precedents across the Union of programmes that currently involve a non-EU country. The committee will all have heard about Norway and Sweden. There are also other programmes ranging from Russia to Andorra and for the accession countries, so the EU already has that facility in place. It also has tools in place such as integrated investment tools for regional policy. We therefore believe there are opportunities and precedents in place and consequently, if there is political will and a financial way, there are opportunities we should be seizing at this moment.

Some reasons non-EU countries get involved with EU countries are really quite straightforward. For some it has to do with the geography of the border region and their wish for integrated development between the neighbouring lands. The programmes become a valued part of the regional policy approaches and create access to centres of innovation, such as universities, which allow for exchange of knowledge. While those precedents exist, however, I believe that Northern Ireland and the Border region of Ireland require a unique, bespoke solution because much of that cross-Border work has been under way for 20 years. As we are now going into a different situation, it is important that we have our own bespoke and unique solution. The PEACE programme was itself a unique solution because there is no other PEACE programme in the whole of Europe. We have the precedent and we should seize that opportunity. Most of the sectors that are going to be affected by Brexit are actually already included in PEACE and INTERREG. We cover a wide range of sectors. Future programmes should include the best of those aspects - all of those aspects - because one cannot have a peace programme without the harder economic aspects the INTERREG programme brings. The programme should have the best of both to help create a Brexit bridge across that Border. Timing is critical, however, because the European Commission is already working on its future, post-2020 programmes. As it is also looking at the regulations and how they will be modified, timing is critical to ensure that nothing is done to those regulations or in the drafting of those future programmes that could exclude an opportunity that we may have in the future.

Ms Gina McIntyre stated that timing is of the essence and that her organisation is already working on it. Had work been done on cross-Border projects and funding prior to Brexit, prior to the referendum result? In other words, was there work in train on the next programme that was then interrupted?

We had a group down here last week from Co-operation Ireland. They were unionist community workers in the main and they argued that they have been left behind and have not benefitted in any way from the peace process or from anything else. Is that because they or their communities have not been proactive enough or where does Ms McIntyre see the problem? I would be interested in her comments because I believe we have to bring all of the communities together, particularly as we are looking at Ireland becoming an economic area. Everybody has to be comfortable in their skin with that notion and nobody has to feel threatened. That might have little to do with Brexit in the short term but long-term it will have an impact on how we, as two parts of the island, jointly try to tackle the problems.

Second, an organisation like the SEUPB is constantly planning for the future and developing new programmes. Has the organisation now reached a cliff edge, unsure of where it is going after 2020? I understand that funding is guaranteed to 2020 but certainly, based on the visitors we have had here from the House of Commons and the House of Lords, there will be no money coming from Westminster towards anything unless some sort of new bilateral agreement in put in place. Has the SEUPB just stopped dead in its tracks and said what we have right now we hold?

I join in welcoming the witnesses and note that what their organisation does is very important and impressive. I was personally involved with the all-Ireland scouting centre at Castle Saunderson and helped those involved to prepare and fight their case to get SEUPB funding. They were very successful. I visited it recently and the output and product there, what it has done, is impressive. It is an enormous facility with huge implications for community building and for young people's lives. It is a great example of what the SEUPB does. The whole list there is very impressive.

A couple of things struck me. Did the SEUPB do much of a marketing job during the campaign on what it does? Was there much of a focus on its work? The organisation goes under the radar a bit and when it is received it is taken for granted. Is there a deficit there in the marketing of the organisation's project and product in the popular sense? Crystal-ball gazing is not in the witnesses' brief and neither they nor any of us know what is likely to happen post Brexit when it comes to replacing the organisation. Have the witnesses a view on that or on what will happen? It will be a huge loss if the SEUPB and these kind of activities are not replaced.

I thank the witnesses for their attendance. This is one of the key issues in respect of the PEACE IV funding.

What we are looking for is the precedent of the Norway-Sweden model, particularly a list of those funding schemes involving EU and non-EU members, which we can include in our submission. We will continue with the PEACE funding and the Government is making a strong case on that. We are lucky that Mr. Barnier was involved in that in his previous post and therefore understands its importance. The scale of the INTERREG programmes - 3,552 businesses helped in the 2007 to 2013 programme - makes stark what will be lost if an alternative is not found. The EU has challenged us to come up with an alternative and to demonstrate that Ireland is a special case. We have to make those special cases. The precedent is there with those cross-border agreements between an EU state and a non-EU state. As INTERREG applies to the EU only, we therefore need to create a special purpose vehicle to replace it. The PEACE funding is unique to Northern Ireland but there are also other unique EU and non-EU funding programmes that we might have to use as an example to replace the INTERREG programme.

The Chair and this committee will be making recommendations but they must be very specific. If we ask the EU to continue the INTERREG programme in Northern Ireland, it will not work. We need to be able to say that we understand that INTERREG cannot continue but that to continue with the peace process we need to continue with INTERREG and follow the funding models and programmes that are in place elsewhere. The witnesses are the experts on this and we need their assistance. What are the other EU and non-EU states doing to programme and fund projects?

Ms Gina McIntyre

We have all the information on the list of programmes involving a non-EU country. They are programmes within the INTERREG family. There are a suite of programmes, INTERREG A, B and C. There are transnational programmes and we have a piece of research on that which details a broad list of the programmes that exist. We can certainly provide a written document to include some of that information. The Norway-Sweden and Swiss-Italian programmes are examples. There are several programmes and we can provide that for the committee.

The way they operate is that the member state that stays within the EU gets its ERDF element from the EU in the same way that any other programme does. The part for the country that is not in the EU comes from its national budget and it is matched.

Therein lies the rub.

Ms Gina McIntyre

Yes. That is how the INTERREG programmes work. The precedent is there.

We are looking for solutions. A draft proposal contained in a report on Brexit by the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, of which I am a member, is that all current and future EU programmes, in the absence of an agreement in the alternative, would be funded by Her Majesty's Treasury. While that is also what Ms McIntyre is talking about, in that instance we would require details on the Italian-Swiss programme, that is, the breakdown of how much the EU country contributes and how much the non-EU country contributes to the same programme. It is important for the work of this committee that we do not talk about the theory of INTERREG continuing but how it works in practice in other countries.

Ms Gina McIntyre

We have the detail on how it works in practice and we can send a report to the committee on that which can be included.

It is hard to break this down because it is multi-annual but in terms of INTERREG, how much would the British Treasury have to give to continue to fund INTERREG post Brexit? Is the witness able to calculate that figure?

Ms Gina McIntyre

It would depend on the nature of the programme because it would depend on the activities contemplated.

How did it work historically? For example, how did it work during INTERREG from 2007 to 2013?

Ms Gina McIntyre

The breakdown is 60:40 at present. The UK side has paid 60% of the current INTERREG programme while 40% comes from the Irish side. The EU funds are included in each of those. Were the UK willing to proceed with future programmes, we obviously would be seeking that it contributed the same money.

The funding issue is very important and will be a core part of the discussions. The EU has said that Ireland must be sorted. It would be very helpful if, in the historic example of the previous funding programme broken down on the 60:40 basis, we could arrive at a figure. This would enable us to say that were this programme replicated post Brexit, this is what the cost would be to the Irish taxpayer, this is what the EU would contribute and this is what the British taxpayer would contribute. That is essential to our work as we do not wish to merely state that programmes should continue. We need hard numbers. The EU wants hard numbers in order to be able to say to Britain, when negotiating the divorce settlement, that certain things have to continue. If that could be supplied it would be very helpful.

Ms Gina McIntyre

We can certainly supply the breakdown from the previous programming period but the budget negotiations within the EU are going to be very difficult going forward. The EU budget reflects what Ireland will get out of it. We will not be able to work out how much finance the UK might be willing to put in to match a programme until all those pieces are in place or if it will contribute anything. It will be the UK's choice if it is going to contribute anything. Those figures are available and we will send them to the committee.

We find that there is a huge interest in these programmes. We are well oversubscribed in the areas of funding that we have delivered and to which we are currently making awards. I do not believe that there was any issue about marketing the programmes.

Mr. John McCandless

I am the communications manager for the SEUPB. The Castle Saunderson project is an excellent project. We were involved in its launch with President Michael D. Higgins a couple of years ago and we got very good coverage for that. It is sometimes difficult to communicate the work that we do. We work with the projects themselves to help them develop what they are doing in terms of communications and marketing and they all have a separate budget for that. We do the marketing and communications and the projects do that as well.

We recently carried out a stakeholder's survey to look in to awareness of the programmes within Northern Ireland, the Border region of Ireland and in western Scotland. Awareness is higher in the Border region than it is in Northern Ireland. It is projects such as Castle Saunderson, the effects of which permeate through the local communities, which help generate awareness of what the EU funding is doing. We can always do more; that is a given. Perhaps the Senators here today would like to come and see some of the projects and help us to communicate the benefits of the work that is being done through PEACE and INTERREG.

Ms Gina McIntyre

Mr. Greer might talk about the level of interest in the projects and how the public have responded to the workshops.

Mr. John Greer

To return to one of the earlier questions on the amount of work done prior to the Brexit vote, we had begun work on the INTERREG programme and on a call for proposals under our specific objective 1.2. We had received a number of applications under that call. Unfortunately for us the UK's decision to leave the European Union happened at a very early stage of the programmes. Fortunately, it has not had a significant impact. Interest in the programmes is phenomenal. Typically, any call for proposals we put out receives requests for funding in excess of three or four times what we have available. Unfortunately for the applicants, there is a high rate of attrition for those requests but it clearly demonstrates a great appetite for the work we are doing and recognition of the programme's place.

Ms Gina McIntyre

Mr. Greer will give an example of one of the projects we fund under INTERREG.

Mr. John Greer

Ms McIntyre touched on the fact that the programmes have a wide-ranging impact, which are the ambitions set down by the Commission. We are output-based, so the Commission has a set of outputs the projects have to achieve but I think we deliver far more than that. One project we are funding under the health call is being led by the Royal National Institute of Blind People, RNIB, and is essentially connecting people who are blind in rural communities with one other. This both provides connection for the people on the ground who are suffering blindness and provides bridges with the community groups that are acting as a conduit to put these people together. The important point is that it has a very dramatic effect on their lives on a day-to-day basis. It changed their lives both for the duration of the programme and for a period thereafter.

One of the bigger things is the projects in INTERREG that are focused on research and innovation. These have very singular outputs looking at the number of PhDs that are produced. Their impact is far wider than that because we are funding investments in creating superclusters round renewable energy. They are providing opportunities to create PhD students, as well as opportunities for employment. They are building an intellectual property, IP, base in Northern Ireland and the Republic. That has massive impacts in respect of employment opportunities and the attractiveness of the region for foreign direct investment. The commercialisation of the intellectual property has real-world effects on developing solutions that people will use on a daily basis. One of our projects, the border and regions airway training hub, BREATH, project is led by the Dundalk Institute of Technology and is focusing on the area of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD. COPD has a much higher rate of prevalence in Ireland and BREATH is developing solutions to address that illness and then commercialising them. Not only is the project providing research opportunities, investing in the intellectual property base and providing jobs for people, but it actually is addressing a condition that is specifically prevalent within our country.

Ms Gina McIntyre

We were not working on future programmes at the time of the referendum because as Mr. Greer alluded to, we were working on getting our current programmes up and running and all the letters of offer approved. Nothing was stalled on that work. We have already started looking to the future and emerging technologies programmes because it is led very much from the Commission's objectives and policies. We look at that and we have a great story to tell with those current programmes. Great work goes on there. There is no shortage of people wanting these programme in the future. We have examples of the types of projects we are doing. People may not have realised that the EU was funding cross-Border programmes but they are excellent.

On the comments about the unionist community, as the PEACE programme is rolling out at present, the local authority action plans are starting in their action to get mobilised. The projects will be mobilised and people will start to see the impact of the PEACE programme on the ground in the next year. There has been a dearth for the past two years, from the end of the programme to the one that is ready to go. They may see the impact of that on the ground. We have done a great deal of work in the past ten years in engaging with the unionist community to bring them into the programme and to ensure they were getting an allocation from the programme. I believe one aspect of the failure to engage was a low capacity within that community to apply for the grants but I would like to think that has been addressed during the years. We certainly have done a great deal of work on that issue. The people who came before the committee might see the impact over the next few months, which will change their attitude.

We are constantly developing new programmes. We are constantly looking at where the gaps are. As we go through these programmes, we will continue to look at revising them if there is funding to do so. We are always looking to the future and we will continue to do so. We think there is a very positive response from both the EU, the UK and Ireland on the impact of these programmes and the challenges we will face. We are very optimistic there will be future programmes . We know the Irish Government are very committed to finding a way forward.

I thank Ms McIntyre sincerely for that engagement. I thank everybody from the Special EU Programmes Body for coming before us.

This is an open process so if there is something that comes across their desk that witnesses would like to feed into the committee's work, we would appreciate hearing from them. We will be continuing for a number of weeks and the more information we have, the better the report and the better recommendations we can make to Commissioner Barnier and to the Government.

We thank Ms McIntyre and her team and wish them the very best of luck in the coming months.

Ms Gina McIntyre

I thank the Chairman.

We will suspend to allow the next witness take his place.

Sitting suspended at 3.05 p.m. and resumed at 3.07 p.m.